Monday, April 7, 2008

In which Amy visits and I later discover that I am a complete idiot

Note that the title merely represents two very separate story lines for this post. Amy’s visit was not the cause of my realization. First, the Amy thread…

The Saturday before Easter, one of my favorite professors at MIT came to Ghana and stayed with me for a few days. Amy Smith teaches D-lab, and was the person who first introduced me to Ghana. Amy is a mechanical engineer and specializes in appropriate technology. She spends a lot of her time traveling around to third world countries trying to figure out how simple machines can improve the lives of the impoverished. Pretty neat, no? She has (rightly) gotten a lot of great press recently, and I have included some links at the bottom of this post that lead to articles about her, her work, and also to the D-Lab general website.

It was so great to catch up with Amy and spend some time with her. This was the first time I had ever really hung out with a professor outside of the MIT environment. Although I can only hope to achieve the things she has in her life, it was cool to interact with her on a more level playing field, as I knew that I would not be graded on my hosting abilities.

We did all sorts of things during her visit. We met with some Peace Corps folks to discuss a possible PC-Dlab partnership, got to see some interesting parts of the city, and went to a Sloane School/Ghana alumni meeting thing at the African Regent, a very swank hotel near the airport. Little did I know that the airport would be the scene of one of the most stressful/hugely embarrassing moments of my life.

This leads nicely into the second thread of this post. On Wednesday, I had planned to take an Emirates flight through Dubai to meet my family in Tuscany for a little spring break. With ticket in hand, I entered the airport three and a half hours in advance, bristling with excitement.

It’s worth noting here that I have only ever, in recent memory at least, traveled with an e-ticket. Therefore, the piece of paper stapled to the top of my emirates ticket envelope I assumed to be my ticket. This is not an excuse for my idiocy, rather, a possible reason for it.

I got as far as the ticket counter, where the ticket agent printed my boarding pass, before he stopped me to look at my ticket again. Turns out, that stapled sheet was just an itinerary. Early on, I must have lost the actual ticket, which I think I mistook for a receipt. The following few hours were filled with tears and anxiety, as you may well imagine. Not to mention that I felt like a completely incapable and dumb American. How could I try to get on my plane without a ticket? The fine and lovely people at Yoshiken Travel basically carted me around and managed to find me a Lufthansa flight through Frankfurt to Rome for the same night. They even arranged to cancel my Emirates ticket so I could get my money back.

The flights themselves were ok. I sat next to a lovely older Ghanaian woman (are there any other kind?) on the way to Frankfurt who, after sharing my story with her, gave me her allowed alcoholic beverages for the evening. Needless to say, I passed out shortly thereafter. My connection in Frankfurt was only about an hour, and I figured that German efficiency would mean that I would arrive at my next flight with time to spare. Not exactly the case. I found myself running through terminals, pushing through customs lines as politely as possible (“pardon me….i’m so sorry, my flight is boarding” etc.), and finally being that jerk that gets on the plane once all the other punctual passengers have already been seated. I sat down and fell back asleep.

Despite the incredible stress involved, a few positive things came out of this experience. First, I now know that when traveling in Africa, paper tickets are required. This may seem clear enough to your average seasoned traveler, but I guess I’m still learning. Doesn’t everyone need a terrible international flying story? I no have mine. Also, I was able to get to the fam even earlier than I had originally planned, so I got to spend a whole extra day with them. Finally, I connected through Nigeria and Germany, two countries I’ve never visited before. After the debacle I had gone through, I’m counting them, for sure.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Easter Blues

Apologies for taking so long to post. Life has been a lot of crazy the past few weeks, which you will be reading about shortly. I have decided to break up the posts, and the first one, unfortunately, is a bit heavy. Fear not, however, as the next couple will be appropriately wacky and lighthearted to make up for this one.

Easter was a few weeks ago, and, to be honest, the days and weeks leading up to it was a sad time for me. A number of things contributed to my melancholy. It hit me for the first time that I am at least an ocean from my family and friends, and just how much I miss them. It’s strange to be away during a holiday that you typically would spend with loved ones. Work was fulfilling and busy as ever, but I still was unable to shake my general bummer feeling.

Easter is a holiday of death and resurrection, and it is strangely ironic that a good deal of my sadness during that time came from the unexpected deaths of two great men that I knew back home. They died at very different ages and for very different reasons, and the news hit me harder than I expected. One death was the father of a very close friend from high school. I have nothing but the most positive and wonderful memories of him, and I wanted to be home so badly to be with my friend and her family. The other was a close acquaintance from MIT, and I will always remember him as a loyal, kind and generous friend. As in the death of my friend’s father, I wanted nothing more than to be with my MIT family to mourn with them and comfort those who I know were far closer to him than I.

After hearing this news, and after a few not-so-great days, I was able to get out of my funk. Sometimes, I just have to look outside and remind myself of where I am. This chapter of my life is an adventure. I am not exactly in my comfort zone, and I’m probably going to have some bad days. But I’m going to have a lot of good ones, too. The inherent kindness of the Ghanaian people is something that I have continually turned to. Frankly, it’s very hard to be upset when the sun is shining and the people are nice.

I would like to end with a little prayer, or mantra, really, that is recited at Catholic funerals. It has always brought me a lot of comfort, regardless of my admittedly fluctuating opinions of the Catholic church. And since both of the deceased mentioned in this post were Catholic men, I thought it an appropriate way to end this post. They will be sorely missed. RIP Rob. RIP Mr. Barrett.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Foray into the Volta Region

Writing this week's post from one of my favorite little bars in Accra. The Honeysuckle is an Irish pub which is very similar to Crossroads, my home base in Boston. While I've been trying very hard to have an "authentic" Ghanaian experience, I've found it's good to sometimes go places that remind you of home. The Honeysuckle is such a place. Also, seeing as we are nearing St. Patrick's day, I thought it appropriate to spend some time in an Irish place.

Another great thing about it is that it has free wifi. My power and water have been out at the apartment for about 24 hours, so its nice to get out and connect with the outside world. This is another thing I've learned to get used to in Ghana. Electricity is a luxury. Blackouts are common, so you learn where the free wifi spots are pretty quickly.

The week at work was pretty good, mostly due to an exciting trip I made on Wednesday into the Volta region. The Volta region is the westernmost region in Ghana, and it is absolutely, stunningly beautiful. It is one of the few places in Ghana with a constant water source (the Volta, the biggest manmade lake in the world), so it is incredibly lush and green. Like an idiot, I forgot my camera, so I'll post some pics next time I head out there. This region also happens to house many of the country's beekeepers, so it made sense for me to visit with Abraham, my forestry department friend, and Tordey, another forestry dept. guy. Tordey's office is in Ho (yes, Ho), the capital of the Volta region. During the day, we met a few beekeepers, visited Tordey's office, and met with some NGO's.

Several good things came out of that day. First, there is plenty of honey to export. I think I've decided to export a small amount (.5 ton) home this summer and put Ellen to work selling it at farmers markets in the area. If that all works out, I may look into importing a couple tons in November. Second, and more importantly, Tordey is interested in setting up a sort of beekeeping community behind his office in the 200 or so acres of forest the forestry commission owns with the Volta Region Association of Beekeepers. If this all gets set up, it means I can contract directly with a bunch of beekeepers, and have a constant honey supply. Having them all together also solves all sorts logistical problems. So long story short, SEED honey is well on its way to actually being something.

Well, I'm off to pick up some groceries at Koala, aka expat central. I think I need to make some young expat friends, as I currently have none and my Ghanaian 30ish friends are very lame and like to stay in on Saturday nights. So, I'm hanging out in Osu today, where the obruni (whitey) to african ratio is probably about 1 to 3. I've found that, when by myself and wearing a cute dress, attractive expats are much more willing to come up and introduce themselves than when I'm surrounded by my Ghanaian friends. Time to broaden my horizons a bit...and happy St. Paddy's everyone!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

First Post

I never thought I'd see the day when I found it necessary to write a blog. Then again, until very recently, I never thought I'd see the day when I felt compelled to move to Africa for a few years. When the latter happened, I decided that a blog would be the best way to keep friends/loved ones/curious strangers updated on my adventures. Akwaabaa! Welcome!

I landed in Ghana in early January to lead a group of MIT students through the country doing various development and appropriate technology projects. It was on this same trip last year that I first came to Ghana as a student and fell in love with the country. This years' trip was incredibly successful. We were able to work on and complete a number of projects, as well as pick up some ideas to work on back at MIT. We made strides in the effort to turn water sachets into shin guards, made some agrocharcoal, tested some water, taught some high school students the glory and excitement of the scientific method, installed some chimneys, and solved some rubik's cubes, among other things. Myself and my other trip leader, Kate Steel, were lucky to have some very baller students with us. Claire, YeSeul, Jackie and Dan were enthusiastic, hardworking and inquisitive. I was also incredibly lucky to co-lead with the likes of Ms. Kate Steel, not just a brilliant engineer, but all around awesome person. It's hard to spend nearly every waking (and sleeping) moment with someone for 3.5 weeks and not have a single disagreement. True story, she actually threw a shoe at me while I was sleeping, and I didn't get mad. She was trying to scare a mouse that had noisily taken up residence in a bureau at the foot of my bed. She later revealed that she was mostly just pissed that I was able to sleep through the ruckus and wanted me awake to share in her misery. Miraculously, we were able to laugh off the incident.

Needless to say, I was very sad to see them all off to Boston. Luckily, I was able to start my job the very next day. I work for Genser Power Ghana, which is an independent power producer. My job, basically, is to sell people power plants that run cleanly, and are more efficient than the grid. However, it is a startup company, so I get to have my hands in lots of different pots, which is really exciting. Right now, I'm trying to figure out where we can get our hands on loads of municipal solid waste (plastic) and used tires so we can use them to fuel our plants, instead of coal. Thailand? Germany? Pittsburgh? All places that I may end up traveling to in the next few months to negotiate the import of thousands of tons of crap that would otherwise be sitting in a landfill somewhere.

Another really cool thing about my job is that my boss, Baafour, is giving me a lot of flexibility to do whatever development-y type stuff I want. This flexibility has given me the opportunity to think through and plan a new business idea, which I call SEED (sustainable export for economic development). The plan (for now) is to develop a business exporting quality local goods (like Ghanaian honey) at fair trade prices to your local Whole Foods and other high-end markets. The idea is to make these local farmers/beekeepers/artisans much richer by expanding their market a bit. Fellow Ghanaians, for example, won't pay any more for their local honey than their parents did. Take that honey (which is delicious, by the way) out of Ghana, tell people that it's benefiting the livelihood of rural people in third world countries, and people will buy it for far more than your average Ghanaian. This idea is very much in its infancy, and there are a TON of things I still need to work out, but I'm really excited about it. This could actually work.

In addition to job stuff, I am truly enjoying my time in Ghana. I'm finally feeling settled, which is a strange feeling, in a way. I've gotten over the 2 month homesickness hump, and while I still miss my family, my friends and my city more than anything, I'm very excited about starting this new chapter of my life in a very different place. Ghana is equal parts invigorating and painfully frustrating. I've made some great friends who have inspired me to explore and live life to the fullest. On the other hand, it's hard to be gung-ho when efficiency is so hard to come by. I am reminded daily that I am in a developing country by terrible roads, visible and heartbreaking wealth disparity, and an overall lack of confidence that anything will actually change. I am convinced, however, that Ghana is on the rise, and being here to witness and, hopefully, assist in the development of this incredible place will be quite an adventure. I look forward to keeping you all posted!

Check back soon for some pictures and more day to day stories. Also, I much prefer actually talking to people than writing essays on a faceless computer. If you don't have skype yet, you should be ashamed of yourself for missing out on one of the greatest free services the internet has to offer. My skype name is (creatively) francesrogoz, and I would love to hear from you.